Septicmania is a reality threatening invasion of the public consciousness caused by factoids distributed through the medium of the newswires. It was fatal before the invention of the Internet.
A outbreak in the Irish town of Tuam last week was particularly infectious. Within hours, it had spread to Washington, Australia, and all broadcasting points in between.
“Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves” – The Guardian.
“Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” – The Washington Post.
“Nearly 800 dead babies found in septic tank in Ireland” – Al Jazeera.
“800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” – New York Daily News.
“Almost 800 ‘forgotten’ Irish children dumped in septic tank mass grave at Catholic home” – ABC News, Australia.
The source for those stories was well known, indeed, every last one of the media was happy to quote her, to add a touch of ‘veracity’ to their report. Her name was Catherine Corless, a local history researcher, who had spent many years combing the records and paying for €3,184 of documents out of her own pocket to do precisely what the Guardian demanded – tell the truth about the children allegedly ‘dumped’ in Galway’s ‘mass graves’.
Yet when she did tell the truth – what happened? The media promptly appended her name to their hyperbolic, pretentious, sanctimonious and manifestly untrue, version of events. They whipped up outrage, caused immense distress to those who had some familial connection to Tuam, and retired to their watering holes satisfied that their jobs were safe for another month. Another ‘story any journalist would want’ was on the news wires.
There were no ‘800 dead babies’ in a septic tank. There were no ‘forgotten’ Irish children. Those children were very much remembered – not least by Catherine Corless. The media knew that; they took turns to interview the son of one of the women who had given birth in the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in front of the ‘memorial’ – and reduced the man to tears as they demanded to know how he felt about being a ‘survivor’ of this ‘terrible tragedy’. He stood in front of the cameras and shook as the tears fell; what nightmares did he endure that night for our entertainment?
That there was a ‘memorial’ for him to stand in front of was testament to the fact, rather than factoid, that the basis of this story was already some 40 years old. Back in 1975, Barry Sweeney and Frannie Hopkins were roaming the area looking for some ‘devilment’ to occupy their ten year old minds, when they decided to climb over a two metre high wall and let themselves into the wasteland surrounding a derelict Victorian workhouse. They decided to test their burgeoning teenage strength by lifting a slab of concrete apparently ‘lying’ on the ground. An echoing void was revealed, and the boys could see ‘approximately 20’ skulls – they were terrified and ran for their lives.
Not surprisingly, the boys kept quiet their ‘find’ – a few local children were aware of the story, children who grew into adults. When the derelict site was purchased and to be turned into a housing estate, local people reminded the priest that an area at the rear of the now departed workhouse had been marked out as unconsecrated ground for the burial of those who were not to be ‘received’ in consecrated ground. ‘Sinners’ who had either never been baptised or who had been ex-communicated for unknown crimes.
Times had changed, and now the priest blessed the land, and local people raised a small amount to pay for a memorial slab to be erected and maintained the small shrine – visiting with flowers, and cutting the grass. Amongst those people was Catherine Corless. She went further than most – she established a committee last year to raise €15,000 to build a more fitting memorial than the rather makeshift affair that the local people had put together. She had already raised €7,000 when another member of the congregation asked the priest at Tuam cathedral for permission to address the congregation after Mass in an effort to boost donations.
Copies of Catherine’s research were handed out, detailing the 175 year history of the site. For 36 of those years, from 1925 to 1961, long after the workhouse had departed, the Nuns of Bon Secour took over the building and used it to give a home to unmarried Mothers and their children. It was a large affair – some 200 women and 100 children at any one time. Catherine’s painstaking research showed that an average of 22 children died every year, from tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis – as they did in Irish families across the land at that time, regardless of whether the families were saints or sinners.
She arrived at a total of 796 children during the period that the building was a Mother and Baby home. She paid for their birth certificates herself. She mentioned the two boys who had found the old stone lined ‘tank’ and said that it was ‘possible’ that the skulls found there should rightfully have been laid to rest in the unconsecrated ground where the other children were buried. There was no evidence that the skulls were either correctly described as children or still born babies, nor placed there during the 36 years that the Nuns took over the building. Nor that anyone in authority had put them there. It was not unknown in Victorian times for women to give birth to unwanted babies secretly in a workhouse toilet and it still occurs in 2014.
However, none of this mattered to the journalists – they had the keywords they were after. Nuns had owned the building at one time. ‘Catholic Church’ Tick. ‘Septic Tank’ Tick. ‘Cruel Nuns’ Tick. ‘800 dead children’ Tick.
Nobody, but nobody, contacted Catherine Corless and asked to see her research. Not the media. Not even the authorities – before announcing a statutory commission of investigation into issues in religious-run mother and baby homes across the State.
Belatedly, and to its credit, the Irish Times has now investigated further, and corrected the many misquotes of Catherine’s work.
‘I never used that word ‘dumped’,” Catherine Corless, a local historian in Co Galway, tells The Irish Times. “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”
What has upset, confused and dismayed her in recent days is the speculative nature of much of the reporting around the story, particularly about what happened to the children after they died. “I never used that word ‘dumped’,” she says again, with distress. “I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own.”
False allegations, yet again, this time by the media pandering to a sector of the public now deprived of organised religion and forced to create its own monsters and folklore devils, its own ‘books of words’ to illustrate the fate which will befall you if you stray from the currently correct sexual path, which appoints its own ‘high priests’ as moral guardians of the herd – and which is apparently incapable of seeing that the millions consumed by all these historic inquiries merely serve to divert funds from children in need today.
Even when the truth is available – the media decline to use it.